Hiking the Inca Trail and seeing the ruins of Machu Picchu at sunrise is on the bucket list for many travelers. It was for me too, until I saw the price tag and thought about the gear I would need to complete such a hike.
Then I remembered I’ve never done any real hiking and an intense 4 day hike in the Andes mountains might not be such a good idea.
I looked into taking PeruRail, the train that takes travelers to Aguas Calientes (the closest point of entry to Machu Picchu), but tickets going to Aguas Calientes were sold out for the entire two weeks I was in Peru.
I couldn’t imagine going all the way to Peru and not seeing Machu Picchu, so I decided to explore the other lesser known route to MP.
The Cusco – Santa Maria – St. Teresa route.
It gets a small mention in the Peru Lonely Planet and is suggested for “die-hard” travelers only. Actually, it’s perfect for solo travelers on a budget interested in doing some moderate hiking.
The total trip should cost you under or around 250 soles/$100 American dollars round trip, including the entrance fee to Machu Picchu, food and accommodation. Compare that to $500 dollars for the Inca trail or a pricey PeruRail ticket running from $96 to $142 dollars round trip, it’s a great deal.
Starting early in the morning in Cusco (no later than 8AM) , you’ll either take a bus to Quillabamba and get off at the Santa Maria stop or take a van with the locals. I opted for the van and it cost me 30 soles for the five hour drive to Santa Maria. Ask your hostel or hotel where the best place is to catch a ride.
Once arriving in Santa Maria, you’ll find another ride (this is really easy as drivers wait for the vans to arrive from Cusco) to St. Teresa. Another 15 soles.
Crash in St. Teresa for the night. There are no hostels so plan on booking a room for yourself.
Next morning, wake up bright and early for your hike to Aguas Calientes!
Pack the necessary food, sunscreen and bug spray.
Walk until you reach the cable car crossing over the Urubamba river. There are several of these cable cars along the river and you’re fine using any of them. This part is a lot of fun.
At this point, if you’re traveling solo, you probably won’t be anymore. This route is increasing in popularity so there are plenty of other hikers around. Don’t worry about getting lost.
photo credit: Greenwich Photography
The next thing you want to look for is a hydroelectric plant. All hikers must sign in before continuing to Aguas Calientes. Once you get through the plant all you have to do is follow the railroad tracks all the way to Aguas Calientes.
Congratulations! You made it! Time to celebrate at one of the ubiquitous pizza joints in town.
Additional things to know:
- Rumor is this hike takes about four hours. It takes closer to eight.
- The bank in Aguas Calientes runs out of money!!! It happened to me and I was stuck without any cash for two days.
- Double check the status of the roads during the rainy season. They may be washed out.
- This is a LONG ride for those who get carsick. Most of the driving between Santa Maria and St. Teresa takes place on extremely narrow dirt roads.
- These prices are from 2010 and may have changed slightly.
If you’re thinking of doing this trek and have more questions, please ask away!
Has anyone else taken the backdoor route to Machu Picchu?
Awesome post Sarah! I fell into the “travelers trap” and thought the only way to hike Machu Picchu was to book it well in advance online and pay a ton of money.
How wrong I was! (Still, the experience was amazing!!)
I just booked my ticket to Peru last week and of course want to do Machi Picchu (kind of the point of my trip). I have budgeted for one of the larger, longer hikes, as this is my big ticket vacation for the year, but as I am by myself, this path looks really interesting and different too. I might look into it more.
Great post! I love alternative route posts like this.
Awesome! Machu Picchu is gorgeous and you’re going to have a great time with whatever route you choose.
Andrea – Great photos and a nice recap of your trip! How was the hike up to Machu Picchu? My mom went there about 10 years ago and did the hike. Reading your blog broguht back memories of her stories from Peru. I know she was really sad about all the children on the streets, and it sounded like she gave them pretty much everything in her purse that she could! I’m glad you guys stood your ground on the cab issue!!
Nice post about an interesting alternative, but I feel like you stopped a little short. This gets people to Aguas Calientes, but not actually to Machu Picchu. I’m assuming since it’s an 8 hour hike to Aguas Calientes from St. Teresa, people will need to stay overnight there before taking the bus up to Machu Picchu on the 3rd day. Are there hostels in Aguas Calientes or just pricey hotels? Also, what are the options for getting back to Cusco from Aguas Calientes (assuming you don’t want to do an 8 hour hike back to St. Teresa).
(full disclosure – I hiked the Inca Trail with a group when I visited Machu Picchu and didn’t stay overnight in Aguas, so I’m just curious about this alternative)
Great questions Katie, and sorry if I lost you toward the end. There are hostels you can stay in Aguas Calientes, as well as single rooms. I didn’t find too much of a price difference in the hostels vs. single room so I opted for a single room with shower. I ended up paying 25 soles for the night. In addition, you can camp outside the town if you like. It generally runs about 10-15 soles for the tent.
To get back, I would absolutely check out PeruRail. I had the full intention of hiking back but after I hiked up to Machu Picchu, I knew I was not cut out to hike back to St. Teresa. Other hikers I met up with made the trek back, and depending on your personal fitness level, it is doable. Hiking back or taking the train are really your only options and it is a good idea to decide how you’re gonna get back before heading out to Aguas Calientes. If you’re not sure, err on the side of being tired.